Midnight screenings cast early B.O. spell

The bell has rung and “Rings” has come out swinging. Actual box office data for first-day ticket sales to New Line’s “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” won’t be available until today, but by Wednesday afternoon it was clear that any concerns the distrib might have nursed about soft opening-day biz were for naught.

“It’s safe to say that there is a huge groundswell out there that even we did not expect to find,” distrib prexy David Tuckerman said. “That’s clear from the excitement the exhibitors have shown, the reviews that we’ve seen and the fact that we’re on as many screens as we are during this play period.”

New Line, which bowed “Lord of the Rings” on a distrib-record 5,700 screens Wednesday, said many midnight screenings and other showtimes had sold out.

New Line also opened the film day-and-date in 13 foreign territories, which rang up box office to the tune of $11.6 million. Some of the biggest numbers came from Germany, with $3.5 million, and France, with $1.8 million.

That could portend boffo weekend box office for the effects-laden fantasy, which unspooled in 3,359 theaters in North America — many offering “Rings” on at least two screens.

On the other hand, only bigger-market venues booked midnight shows or even matinees for the nearly three-hour pic.

On Tuesday, distrib projected pic would gross at least $60 million in its first five days through Sunday (Daily Variety, Dec. 19).

Eye on overnights

“Our numbers are huge in Manhattan and all of the matinee cities,” Tuckerman said Wednesday. “But I think that tonight will tell us where we’re going to go this weekend. It’s almost a three-hour running time, so it’s hard to tell what it’s going to do in the smaller theaters and smaller towns with only one showtime.”

AMC Entertainment spokesman Rick King said the Kansas City, Mo.-based exhib skedded midnight shows in 59 theaters in various markets.

“We enjoyed exceptional attendance, including sellouts in some major markets and college towns,” King said.

Meanwhile, though nobody expects “Rings” to deliver anything like the recent $90.3 million record bow of Warner Bros.’ “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” it appears New Line is managing to one-up its corporate kin’s family fantasy in one way: ” ‘Harry didn’t do much in midnight screenings,” King noted.

AMC’s strongest midnight markets for “Rings” were San Jose, Calif.; Columbus, Ohio; Chicago; Dallas-Fort Worth; and San Antonio, he said.

Midnight madness

Brian Callaghan, marketing director at Chestnut Hill, Mass.-based General Cinemas, said exhibs are happy for any opportunity to mount midnight screenings. “It adds a whole set of showtimes that they normally don’t have.”

GC offered midnight “Rings” showtimes in 30 different locations, producing several sellouts.

Some exhibs argue that long running times don’t translate into more popcorn, candy and beverage sales per showtime. But Callaghan said he believes “Rings” will prove to be “a great concession movie.”

A significant number of patrons will show up early to secure seats, thus raising the prospects for double dipping at the concession stand, he argued.